Constitutional Expert: Caroline Kennedy
Scholastic News Online talks to author about the importance of the Constitution
Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy, sits in front of an image of her father at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. (Photo: Chitose Suzuki/AP Wide World)
Caroline Kennedy has written or edited three books about the Constitution, and has a new book coming out this fall, A Family of Poems: My Favorite Poetry for Children. She is the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy. She recently spoke to Scholastic editors about the importance of the Constitution.
Why should kids care about the Constitution?
Kennedy: Everyone should care about the Constitution, because the Constitution is really the foundation of our country and the way that we live. We are so lucky to live in the United States of America and have the Constitution. We have an obligation to learn about it and to learn about our government and learn about our community because we are lucky enough to live in this great country.
Harry Truman said that the highest office in a democracy is that of the citizen. So I think it's important for kids to realize that they are going to grow up and that really all of us under the Constitution are the people who are running the country. Everybody has a responsibility to create the kind of government and society that we want to live in.
Why should kids study about it in school?
Kennedy: It's important to study the Constitution in school to know and understand a little about our government, because we live in a democracy that everybody has to participate in.
It's even more important to understand that the Constitution is very much alive today and it affects our lives every single day and it affects kids' lives every single day.
It's not just a historical kind of a dry, boring subject in school. This is something that affects us every time we go to church or read the paper or we talk on the telephone, or we go on the computer. The Constitution is, in an indirect way, setting the guidelines for a lot of those activities that are really important to us.
What does the constitution mean to you?
Kennedy: I feel very lucky to live in America and to grow up in a free country. I feel like I have a chance to affect the kind of country that I live in and I think that each one of us does.
The Constitution gives me the right to vote and sets up a government in which my voice can be heard, and so I think that it's really a great opportunity to participate and get involved. Things are much more fun when you get involved. It's easy to sit on the sidelines and think something is boring or it's something going on far away from you, but in fact I think as people begin to get involved and follow an issue in their community, their school, in the newspaper, then they will find it much more interesting.
How can kids get involved in the political process?
Kennedy: If they are following what's going in their community, their church, their school, their family, their neighborhood, talking to their friends, reading or listening to TV news or newspapers, they are involved. One way they can get involved is to pick one thing they are interested in and follow that. Especially now that we have the Supreme Court nominee hearings, I think that this is something that if kids are interested in any particular issue that they can follow what happens to that issue during this period of time.
If there's an election going on, if kids sign up their parents to vote and talk about it at home about the issues and the campaign and if they get involved, I think that makes it more fun, just like it's more fun to play sports than to watch.
It's more fun if you're involved to get your friends involved and try to do something in your community as you learn a little more about how it works. Often times if you write to your local officials, they are very happy to come and talk to classes, and there are always people in the community who have served in government who can come and talk to the class.
There are so many great projects that students are doing around the country: getting involved in the elections, picking an issue in their town, or studying the Patriot Act and bringing it to their town. There are things in the headlines all the time that kids can get interested in. It's so important to realize that the Constitution isn't just history. That's kind of the way it's always taught in school, but this is something that affects our lives every day right now.
Related to that, what should kids know about the Patriot Act and how it affects civil liberties?
Kennedy: I think the Patriot Act, as we all know, was passed in response to the events on September 11. But the interesting thing is that when Congress passed it, they provided for some of the provisions to expire, so this coming fall, those are going to be debated again.
This is a great time for kids to read about that and maybe learn a little about it, because the House and Senate have two different bills and they are going to be arguing about some of those provisions.
It's a good time for kids to focus on those and learn about some of those provisions because it's so important, especially in a time when people are afraid, that we preserve our liberties, but we also stay safe.
We're constantly trying to balance those two things in our society. The Patriot Act is one of the ways we are trying to do that, and one of the things that's going to be debated is a provision about library records and also how long these provisions are going to last.
The House has a provision for 10 years and the Senate for 4, and so it will be an interesting debate. I think that's when it's more interesting for kids, because it's very complicated law, and I think that all Americans have an interest in preserving our civil liberties that are so very fundamental to our democracy. This is a good time for kids to maybe learn a little about it and help kids understand some of the more complicated provisions, and they can watch and track what happens to one or two of these things.
What is the most important thing for kids to take out of this lesson about the Constitution?
Kennedy: Kids should understand that the Constitution is not just something that happened in 1787, the way that it is sometimes taught in school. Even then the founding fathers had a lot of disagreement about the Constitution and how it should be written.
There are countries around the world today that are struggling to write a constitution and it's such a difficult process, and we have, here, the oldest, most successful constitution in the world, so we should be very proud of that. But it only works if we're interested in it and we learn about our government and our communities, because the Constitution provides for everyone to participate.
It's only if we realize that it affects our lives today, every single day. Kids have to understand that it's important for them to be interested in that, and if they are proud to be an American they should be interested and care about the Constitution.
What can kids learn from the Constitution writing process currently underway in Iraq?
Kennedy: It reminds us how lucky we are to have the constitution that we have, and it makes us appreciate how difficult it is to write a constitution that protects the rights of everyone. Our constitution protects the rights of minorities and gives us the right to a fair trial and allows for freedom of speech and religion. I think those are the issues that are such basic human rights that countries around the world are struggling with. We can see that on the front page right now. I think it's probably very interesting, although its complicated to watch what's happening in Iraq and see how difficult it is. I hope it will inspire Americans to get interested in what's going on over there, but also to appreciate and get involved in preserving our own freedoms here at home.
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